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Tiger is Master of his domain

Here we are, 10 years later, although Tiger Woods swears he can't grasp that a decade has already expired.

Are you sure it wasn't just last year he won his first Masters? Wasn't it just six months ago he captured his second? A few weeks ago when he notched his third, and then his fourth? Woods insists he must be living in dog years, every seven counting as one, because where has the time gone?

He's 31, married and awaiting the birth of his first child. He's become the wealthiest athlete on the planet, with annual earnings in the proximity of $100 million, and among the world's more recognizable faces.

That Woods would get the game of golf evolving in unimaginable ways was predicted, more or less, by Jack Nicklaus during the Masters of 1996. Woods missed the cut that year as an amateur, carding matching 75s, but the Golden Bear sensed where it all was heading, with Arnold Palmer seconding the motion.

"Arnold and I both agree that you could take his Masters and my Masters and add them together and this kid should win more than that," said Nicklaus, who rarely gushes.

Woods needs six more green jackets to equal the combined total of Nicklaus (six) and Palmer (four), which may or may never happen, this week's result likely to lend further insight. What's undeniable is that golf has changed radically since Woods first won here 10 years ago, with the unrefined tools of a 21-year-old, in a performance so resounding it will permanently reside in the company of the game's grandest achievements.

The aftershocks of Tiger's 12-stroke win in 1997 continue to spread, and will do so well into the next decade. His dominance in the wake of golf's technological boom prompted a multi-year retooling of Augusta National to protect the integrity of the original design. The magnitude of his triumph ushered golf from the fringes of sporting acceptance straight into the mainstream. Participation increased. Equipment sales soared. And that newly cultivated interest translated into higher television ratings and nearly a three-fold increase in tournament purses. In 1996, nine players earned $1 million on the PGA Tour. Last year there were 93.

"I don't think I could have imagined the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game of golf, but I sure am a huge benefactor of it and sure am appreciative of it," Phil Mickelson said. "That types of dollars that we're playing for now were unfathomable to me 10 years ago before he came out."

"I think we all probably owe Tiger a little . . . percentage of everything that we make just because of what he's done for the game of golf, and the way he's handled himself as well," Charles Howell III said. "Tiger Woods has been a godsend for the game of golf, really."

Less tangible at this stage is the effect Woods has had in dismantling the sport's racial barriers. There has been no appreciable increase in the number of minorities on the PGA Tour, little visible evidence that he's pioneered new generation of players, and a new acceptance.

"Still way too early," Woods said. "Probably the best way to describe it, it's like a pyramid effect. The bigger the base you have, the better chance you have somebody get to the top, the peak of the pyramid. . . . Fifteen, 20 years from now, you'll probably see it."

What have changed are the perceptions. NBA great Michael Jordan is an avid golfer. So is Charles Barkley. Not long ago Woods played a round with three Atlanta Braves: John Smoltz, Jeff Francoeur, and Adam LaRoche (now with Pittsburgh). Hundreds of new courses have been constructed to meet the continuing demand. And it all traces back to '97 at the Masters and an emphatic record victory that took golf out of the closet and made it the height of fashion.

"That was not the case when I was playing junior golf," Woods said. "Golf was looked down on as a wussy sport and no one ever played it. Guys are starting to see it. It helps when you get celebrities out there like Jordan who everybody views as iconic. If he loves the game of golf [people conclude] there's got to be something to it."

There was no indication the golf world was about to change as Woods began play in his third Masters back in 1997. He shot a ghastly 40 on the front side. His putting was a mess. If anything, it appeared he was destined to miss the cut for the second straight year. And then, as he recollected, "All of a sudden, I got hot."

He shot 6-under 30 on the back for a 70 that drew him within three shots of leader John Houston. He followed up with a 66 on Friday, opening a three-shot advantage over Colin Montgomerie. Saturday brought a 65 and a nine-shot lead over his closest pursuer. It was a done deal that Woods would become the youngest Masters champion ever, unseating Seve Ballesteros. The remaining drama centered on whether Woods could break the tournament record of 17 under par shared by Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd, which he did, his final-round 69 dropping him to minus-18. It was a stunning achievement for one so young, on a course with a bias toward experience.

"I was certainly raw in '97," Woods said. "My course management skills, my shot variety, I didn't really have too many shots. Didn't really have the trajectory control that I do now. And certainly didn't have the 10 years of experience of playing out here on Tour and learning how to manage my game was well as I do now."

Certainly Woods senses the impact he's had on the game, but he remains reluctant to acknowledge it. Augusta National plays almost 500 yards longer than it did in '97. There's a second fairway cut whereas there was no hint of rough back then.

"I guess it's all my fault, huh?" Woods deadpanned.

There's no guessing about it.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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